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Behind the scenes of Parliament

Tuesday 10th February 2015

Parliament can be a strange place.

At any given moment, there are groups of tourists being shown through, stopping to gaze at paintings of old white men who once held very important positions. There are people sporting lanyards with photo ID clutching clipboards hustling from meeting to meeting. And oh, hey, is that the Prime Minister I just saw?

WATCH: To get a feel for what happens there, the Speaker, Rt Hon David Carter, takes The Wireless senior producer Megan Whelan on a tour of the debating chamber.


In the House, the Speaker is there to chair the proceedings, a job David Carter describes as a bit like being the referee of Parliament. He’s there to make sure every MP gets a fair go in the debating chamber, and that they all abide by the rules. (The rules are called Standing Orders, and there are a lot of them.)

LISTEN: Radio New Zealand’s political reporter, Chris Bramwell goes into the “snake pit”: the debating chamber.

For Carter, the one of the hardest parts of the job has been going from being a politician to being “Parliament’s man”. While he’s still a paid-up member of the National Party, he doesn’t attend caucus, and he has no role in policy decisions – he’s an apolitical politician. After 20 years in Parliament that can be tough. “I used to describe it as a lonely position, I don’t think that’s true because there’s so much else going on. But it’s certainly an isolated position.”

But that’s the job, and the Speaker needs to make sure they have the respect of the opposition parties. “A bit like a rugby match, except there’s no action replays. My job is to make a decision…and Members of Parliament don’t have to agree with that decision, but they do have to accept it.”

The Speaker sits in the big (usually sheepskin-covered) chair at one end of the debating chamber, with Government MPs to their right, and Opposition MPs opposite them. In front of the Speaker is the Clerk of the House who is there to help out on matters of law or procedure. There’s also the Hansard staff keeping a record of everything that is said, and officers like the Serjeant at Arms who is in charge of making sure everyone behaves appropriately and that Parliament’s rules are kept to.

The Serjeant-at-Arms also leads the speaker into the chamber carrying the Mace – essentially a gold club, which is a symbol of the authority of Parliament. When the Speaker is in the Chamber, it sits on a table in the middle of the chamber, and when the speaker leaves it is placed under it. It’s very shiny, and like most things in New Zealand’s Parliament is similar to one used in the UK’s House of Commons.

Today, Parliament opens for its first sitting of 2015. Politicians will meet for question time and then debate the various pieces of legislation before the house. (There’s a lot – we’ll cover those debates another time).  Question time is the part that most people see on the news – it’s the part with people banging on desks, and yelling at each other across the house. It’s all about holding the government to account.

There are 12 questions, and Ministers get told them in the morning, but only the first one. After that, any MP can ask a “supplementary” (follow up) question, as long as it’s on the same topic. The question must be answered to the satisfaction of the Speaker – something that often causes long debates, both in the House and amongst the more politically-minded people on Twitter.

Often an opposition MP will ask the Prime Minister “does he have confidence in all his ministers”. He will, of course, answer “yes”, and the member will then ask about the performance of a specific Minister. Or, an MP will ask a specific question about a policy to attack the government.

Occasionally, government MPs will ask questions – sometimes known as patsy questions – so that a minister can announce something good that has happened, or take a crack at the Opposition.

How a bill becomes law - Meg Howie illustrates the parliamentary process. 

Carter points out that politicians make their reputations – think Trevor Mallard or Winston Peters – in question time. It’s a chance for the opposition to show off their skills or expose the government. And ministers make their names by being able to answer the questions.

MPs are more collaborative – and friendlier – in other debates and in Select Committees, he says.  “Whilst question time gives the impression that parliamentarians are always at each other’s’ throat that is not the way this place really operates. But for an hour, it’s pretty important.”

This content was made for The Wireless with funding from Parliament. 

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Megan is a former senior producer for The Wireless. She has worked in Radio New Zealand News, Sport, and Radio New Zealand International, has an extensive library of animated gifs, and spends too much time on the internet.
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